Building Better Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.